Dowell v. Board of Education of Oklahoma City Public Schools

Dowell v. Board of Education of Oklahoma City Public Schools is the name given to a series of cases that moved back and forth through the federal courts for more than three decades as Oklahoma schools worked to achieve desegregation to the court’s satisfaction. The significance of Dowell is that the Supreme Court upheld the authority and discretion of lower courts to address issues relating to school desegregation. The Court also made clear that desegregation decrees were temporary measures to remedy past discrimination and conveyed that school desegregation was a local concern.

Facts of the Case

Dowell began in 1961 when African American parents and students sued the Board of Education of Oklahoma City to end de jure (purposeful or intentional) segregation. A federal trial court found that officials in Oklahoma City purposely segregated both schools and housing while maintaining a dual school system intentionally segregated by race. Consequently, the court approved an order directing the board to revise its school attendance boundaries using neighborhood zoning. However, the Tenth Circuit summarily rejected the plan. On further review, a unanimous Supreme Court (1969), in a one-page per curiam opinion, vacated the decision of the Tenth Circuit.

Relying on the Fourteenth Amendment and the need to desegregate schools immediately, the justices pointed out that the trial court’s approval of the board’s plan was not inappropriate prior to consideration and adoption of a comprehensive plan for complete desegregation of school systems (Dowell, 1969). The justices added that insofar as the trial court ordered the desegregation measures into effect and the parties had not raised an objection made to their scope, the Tenth Circuit should have permitted their implementation pending argument and further review.

By 1972, the trial court recognized that the school board’s efforts had not eliminated state-imposed segregation. To this end, the court directed school officials to adopt a plan involving student reassignments and busing to achieve desegregation (Dowell, 1972). The Tenth Circuit affirmed (1972b), and the Supreme Court refused to hear a further appeal (1972c). Five years later, the trial court, in an unpublished opinion, granted the board’s motion to close the case on the basis that the district had achieved unitary status.

Due to changes in demographics, the board in Oklahoma City instituted a student reassignment plan in 1985 that resulted in a return to primarily one-race schools in some formerly desegregated schools. As a result, the plaintiffs unsuccessfully made a motion to reopen the litigation, claiming that the district had not achieved unitary status and that the school system was returning to a segregated system (Dowell, 1985). However, the Tenth Circuit reversed (Dowell, 1986a), declaring that the 1977 order that the district achieved unitary status was binding. In addition, the court indicated that because the 1972 desegregation decree was still in effect, the parents could challenge the student reassignment plan. The Supreme Court refused to intervene (Dowell, 1986b). On remand, the trial court (Dowell, 1987) noted that the demographics and residential segregation, though not purposeful, meant that while the desegregation plan was no longer viable, the court had no choice but to vacate the earlier injunction and return the district to local control. The Tenth Circuit (Dowell, 1989) again reversed, but this time the Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal (Dowell, 1990).

The Court’s Ruling

The primary issue in Dowell (1991), the last desegregation case in which Justice Thurgood Marshall participated, was the terms and conditions for dissolution of desegregation decrees. Due to concerns about the lack of clarity concerning the definition of unitary status and the Fourteenth Amendment requirements of equal protection under the law, the Supreme Court decided that school boards are entitled to clear-cut statements of their obligations under desegregation decrees.

In reversing and remanding the Tenth Circuit’s judgment for further consideration, the Supreme Court dissolved a desegregation order that had been in place since 1972. The justices maintained that because desegregation orders “are not intended to operate in perpetuity” (p. 248), federal trial courts could terminate such decrees if educational officials proved that they “complied in good faith with the desegregation decree since it was entered” (pp. 249–250), eliminated “the vestiges of past discrimination . . . to the extent practicable” (p. 250), and exhibited a commitment not to “return to [their] former ways” (p. 247). As soon as boards proved that they had met these conditions, the Court asserted that they would have achieved unitary status. The Court further reasoned that in making such a finding, a trial court should not view a board’s adoption of a plan as a breach of good faith, even if it was technically flawed, as long as it was not intended to operate in perpetuity.

As it considered whether the board eliminated the vestiges of segregation, the Court continued to rely on the six factors it enunciated in Green v. County School Board of New Kent County (1968). The Green factors used to evaluate whether school systems have achieved unitary status are the composition of the student body, faculty, and staff; transportation; extracurricular activities; and facilities; these principles have been applied in a plethora of school desegregation cases. The Court was thus satisfied that the board achieved unitary status with regard to student assignments, transportation, physical facilities, and extracurricular activities; it agreed that the trial court properly returned control over these areas to the school board.

Darlene Y. Bruner

See also Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka; Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka and Equal Educational Opportunities; Green v. County School Board of New Kent County; Segregation, De Facto; Segregation, De Jure

Legal Citations

  • Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka I, 347 U.S. 483 (1954). 
  • Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka II, 349 U.S. 294 (1955). 
  • Dowell v. Board of Education of Oklahoma City, 396 U.S. 269 (1969); 328 F. Supp. 1256 (W.D. Okla. 1972a); aff’d, 465 F.2d 1012 (10th Cir. 1972b); cert. denied, 409 U.S. 1041 (1972c); 606 F. Supp. 1548 (W.D. Okla. 1985); 795 F.2d 1516 (10th Cir. 1986a); cert. denied, 479 U.S. 938 (1986b); on remand, 677 F. Supp. 1503 (W.D. Okla. 1987); vacated, 890 F.2d 1483 (10th Cir. 1989); cert. granted, 494 1055 (1990); 498 U.S. 237 (1991); on remand, 778 F. Supp. 1144 (W.D. Okla. 1991); aff’d, 8 F.3d 1501 (10th Cir. 1993). 
  • Green v. County School Board of New Kent County, 391 U.S. 443 (1968).